Mitch Easter: Outtakes from This Week's Music Feature, Let's Stay Active
In this week's paper, I interview Mitch Easter, a noted producer/engineer/musician who will be in town at Lucas School House on Saturday night, in support of a new solo album, Dynamico. Easter was famously a member of the influential bands Sneakers and Let's Active, and produced bands such as R.E.M., Game Theory, the Connells and more. (Here's a good list.)
Local power-pop expert (and former RFT writer) Jordan Oakes -- who published a 'zine called Yellow Pills that evolved into a well-received series of CDs -- had this to say about Easter's influence on music: "Mitch Easter brought us the unmistakable sound of early R.E.M. and, thanks to his inventive production of countless other Dixie combos, guaranteed the term 'jangly guitar' would have a prominent spot in the power-pop lexicon. The fact that he also writes great songs and plays a mean guitar is Southern gravy on his other accomplishments."
I touch on all of these subjects and more in the feature, but here are some outtakes, along with some YouTube chestnuts from Easter's bygone days.
Let's Active, "Waters Part":
What was the writing process like for Dynamico?
It’s gotten sort of easier for me to write songs over the years. I’ll have days where I pick up an instrument and songs pop out. Usually when that happens, I try to record it in some way – either a little memo thing, on a cassette machine, or if I have time I’ll do a demo of it. It’s something I’ve figured out I can’t do exactly deliberately. I have to do it sort of backwards. Obviously it’s an active proess, but it’s a semi-unactive proces that comes out of the air. But if I don’t worry about it, I find that I can usually just write songs.
When you were doing all the recording stuff with R.E.M. and others, did you think it would have this incredible impact today?
Oh, no, it’s shocking. It’s really funny, the first big session we did was [R.E.M.'s debut, 1983's]Murmur. I had done the smaller records before that, but Murmur was one of the first LP-kind of things I ever did. We worked on it just like anything else and when we got through it, we thought, ‘Well, it’s okay.’ You get so close to something, you just don’t know. I remember I played a cassette of it to some people in a van I was riding with. I actually had the master tapes, I was going to New York to get the thing mastered. I played it for people, and they were like, ‘Wow!’ and I thought, ‘Really? You think it’s all right?’ I had no idea that people would like it.
In the first six months or so of being around that, it was every day was some new amazing piece of news of how well they [R.E.M.] were doing. It was really a fast transition. They had been around for awhile, but they had a pretty much straight-up kind of career trajectory. But if someone had told me there would be special events to commemorate the 25th anniversary of [R.E.M.'s 1982 debut EP, which Easter also produced] Chronic Town, I would have just said, ‘Yeah right.’ Not many records at all have that kind of lifespan. That’s pretty cool. All of that stuff has stayed in print, it still sells. It’s crazy.
Do you still talk to the band at all?
I never did see them much outside of doing the sessions. Last time I saw them was the Georgia Music Hall of Fame. Right before the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. It was great too, cause [former drummer] Bill Berry played. It was totally excellent, it was the real band. I’ll see them occasionally like that. They’re always super-nice to me. It’s nice to see them.
Let's Active, live in New Orleans, 1986:
Easter on how the word ‘rock’ is pretty relative these days…
It’s one of those words that’s really been debased in my mind. It should be reserved for geology and for rock music. And I don’t think you should say that some new politician ‘rocks.’ That’s realy depressing to me. The word ‘rock’ has become this everything word, that’s used for a new makeup color. It doesn’t have a very strict meaning anymore.
On whether a Let’s Active reunion of the original lineup might ever happen…
Nah, I don’t think it would ever really happen. I don’t think anybody really wants to do it. I’m pretty indifferent to it, too. I’d do it if it was something that the world actually was going to pay attention to, cause it would be fun. But to play for what we call the four guys – because a lot of times it is the four guys that come out, bless their hearts that they came out -- but it’s just not really viable. You gotta have a little bit more going on than that. And unless some promoter got involved.
Faye [Hunter, bassist] is still around here and she can still play. And [drummer] Sara Romweber is playing with her brother Dexter. But I never see her. It would take some external thing to make that happen.
Mitch Easter, "You/Me," from Los Angeles, 2007:
On the last time he played St. Louis:
We played at the Creepy Crawl. No, it was good. Shalini, my wife, was doing a tour for her band that year. And I was playing guitar. That’s where she had a show. In a funny way, it was one of our more enjoyable shows. Metal guys and punks are sort of nice, you know? I thought the vibe there was friendly in a certain kind of way. [laughs] I really enjoyed that.
On what the future holds…
I’m very anxious to make the next record. Already I’ve missed my goal here, but you know how in the 1960s, bands would put out a complete LP, like, every six months? I thought it would be really great to do that after this multi-generational absence, to put out a whole bunch of records now, every six months. I think that would be really funny. The problem is, I’ve got this studio job and the studio is this very time-consuming thing. It’ll be weeks before I can even get in here to do anything myself. I’m going to make the next record as soon as I possibly can, just for the hell of it.